What's So Funny? or, Why Humor Should Matter to Philosophers

By Atkinson, Camille | Philosophy Today, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

What's So Funny? or, Why Humor Should Matter to Philosophers


Atkinson, Camille, Philosophy Today


What makes us laugh and why should this be important for philosophy? Relatively speaking, the comical is an area of aesthetics that philosophers have paid little attention to, yet laughter is something found in all cultures and appears to be uniquely human. So, I wonder, does humor have any philosophical significance? In other words, beyond the psychological appeal or social functions of humor, is there a way in which it is relevant to philosophy or serves a philosophical purpose? In this essay, I will argue that humor is useful for philosophers insofar it stimulates reflection or speculation. However, I believe that this depends upon a specific theory of humor as well as certain assumptions about the nature of philosophy.

I will start by giving a brief overview of some of the most popular theories on humor. Specifically, I will describe the three positions delineated by Simon Critchley in his work On Humour-the superiority theory, the relief theory, and the incongruity theory. ' I will then elaborate upon the latter, using the work of Henri Bergson as well, since this is the perspective I find to be most promising for provoking philosophical reflection or stimulating dialogue.

The "superiority" theory-held by Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes-was the dominant view from the classical period to the eighteenth century. It claims that we laugh when we feel superior to others or because we want to feel superior. It explains why we might laugh at someone else's misfortune or at jokes that make fun of another's ethnicity, gender, etc. Because of this tendency towards humiliation, or its unjust character, Plato would have banned comedy in his ideal state (see Republic, Book X, 606c). Most forms of ethnic humor and physical comedy fit into this category, since we tend to make fun of "people who are not like us, and usually believed to be either excessively stupid or peculiarly canny" (Critchley 69). Thus, we laugh at the inept clown, the absentminded professor or the customs of "foreigners." I doubt that this type of humor has much philosophical significance, as it is too dependent on cultural or personal prejudices. Furthermore, ethnic jokes or pratfalls do little to stimulate critical thought or further reflection. Whether one laughs at stereotypes or derogatory remarks pertaining to one's own or another's race, gender, religion, etc. is more a matter of taste, manners, or personal background than morality. However, this is not to say that such jokes cannot be unethical, or border on immorality, but this can only be determined by the occasion or depending upon the context. Moreover, superiority types of humor may be psychologically or socially useful insofar as it represents what Critchley calls "comic scapegoating." For example, ethnic "jokes can therefore be read as symptoms of societal repression and their study might be said to amount to a return of the repressed." So, despite the fact that this may be a rather debased form of humor, which reveals us to be "persons ... we would really rather not be," it may provide a starting point for the analysis of social ills or personal prejudice (Critchley 12). Still, I would argue, these types of jokes are too particular or idiosyncratic to be of much value philosophically in as much as they do not provoke us to engage in critical reflection or contemplation. Nonetheless, the study of this kind of humor and its various instances can be illuminating sociologically or psychologically.

The "relief theory-held by Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud-claims that laughter is the release of nervous energy. Laughing relieves tensions which may have been building up or sublimates them into a form which may be more socially acceptable. It accounts for why people might laugh when they are really angry, grief stricken or sexually aroused. The idea is that it takes energy to repress inappropriate emotions or uncomfortable feelings, and that energy gets released through humor or laughter. …

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